The spectators were as plentiful as the population of Middle Knot City, as I claimed victory over a rugged, vengeful U.S special forces Captain seeking his lost baby from the distant corners of an unrestful afterlife. But this was far from the end, in the gaming session that prolonged for 5 hours and 7 minutes I faced a gigantic whale with more teeth than I’d like to remember, unbearable weather conditions, and a strange game loop that seemed to compel the player to completely give up and bring the story to an anticipated end, out of sheer frustration.
This was my occupation last Saturday night, finishing the 45th gaming session of “Death Stranding – Director’s Cut” and the last one to be streamed via my Twitch account. Now, this wasn’t the first time I saw this ending, it was the second, as I started streaming the “Director’s Cut” version of the game one day after I finished the whole standard version of the game for the first time, in a rather unusual time management decision from my end.
But it was worth every minute, and the reasons are not only related to how awesome this game is, but also to personal processes that made this first video game streaming project a real milestone for me (someday I will write about this underlying context, but today I want to make it about the game). After three introductory paragraphs, I hope you’re itching to hear what’s so good about this game and I’ll give you my point of view, but before doing so, I would like to provide two preliminary disclaimers:
- This article will be FULL of spoilers, so act in accordance with this warning
- This was also my first streaming project, and it was 100% recorded from the very beginning of the story until the very end. If you’re into viewing long hours of gameplay then you can access the full experience via my YouTube channel, so I’m leaving the playlist here:
An Unusual Hero, For an Unusual World
Perhaps one of the things that catch the eye when you look at images from Death Stranding is that the main character has a rather familiar face, at least if you were a viewer of “The Walking Dead” which made Norman Reedus quite a star. A second thing that catches people’s attention is the fact that this character is carrying a fully developed fetus in a sort of tank device which is part of his toolset; things may get kind of creepy there, but as you progress through the game you start realizing this fateful relationship between a porter and his “safety tool” ends up being a rather emotional and deep bond that’s challenged and defended several times until the very end of the story.
To understand these two and their adventure throughout vast, mostly desolate territories, we first need to become familiar with the Death Stranding, the cataclysmic event that changed the rules of the game for mankind and initiated what’s later announced as the “Sixth Extinction”, pretty much the end of the world. The Death Stranding was a phenomenon that brought together the world of the dead and the world of the living; but this is not a ghost story where a character sees dead people, this is an actual issue where existence and unexistence collide in chaos and such collisions generate mass destruction like that of atomic bombs or pandemics, and people are forced to live in underground shelters since precipitation (both rain and snow) known as “time fall”, becomes yet another dreadful agent of destruction since it ages object and beings at an accelerated pace: a couple minutes exposed to time fall may age you to death. Not only is time fall a reason to live in isolation, but the fact that the BTs (Beached Things), which is the name given to the “undead” entities seemingly responsible for the destruction, are scattered everywhere and every time a person dies, this person is doomed to become a BT and cause massive destruction around them unless they’re promptly taken to an incinerator.
To add some more spice to this already desolating dystopia, there are groups of vandals (MULES) and terrorists roaming to rob the few people who dare travel the open field and creating yet another risk for the frail, decimated population that remains.
It’s no wonder that in such a situation, the new heroes and saviors of mankind are those who dare to roam the open terrain, risking their lives, and exposing themselves to all these horrors in order to take supplies from point “A” to point “B”, yeah that’s right: couriers. Equipped with special suits to keep them from the effect of time fall and BT detectors or “Odradeks” these foot soldiers remain the living force of an otherwise hidden and frightened humanity.
And out of those brave few, Sam Porter (yes all characters have names and last names that talk about their condition somehow) is the ultimate porter who, besides running packages from facility to facility, has the daunting task of connecting all isolated cities and preppers via the major technological advancement of this era: the chiral network. This network is paradoxically made possible by the existence of chiralium, a material that generates from contact with the BT world, so in a sense, it’s a tool born from disgrace but that’s ultimately providing a means to communicate, share knowledge, intelligence and useful designs for the 3-D printers that are able to build vehicles, shelters, weapons, highways and pretty much most non-biological goods needed in this world. At the heart of the development of this technology is the research and utilization of “Bridge Babies”, unborn children from “still mothers”, braindead pregnant women whose special condition provides their developed fetuses the capability to interact with both the world of the dead and the world of the living. This is why Sam carries a baby in a tank that’s attached to his suit, the baby is what powers the Odradek and basically gives Sam visibility of BTs so that he can avoid being dragged into the netherworld: the baby is a ghost radar if you may. And although throughout the game people keep speaking of such babies as tools, since the beginning Sam creates a special bond with his “BB”, Lou, that would become a reciprocal, surprisingly enduring friendship. These two, are probably some of the most unusual hero/sidekick tuples we will ever witness!
I. Breaking Free of Conditioning: The Characters
Well, having described the context and introduced the heroes of the story, it’s time to go deeper into some of the layers of meaning in the story. I will not talk about game mechanics, although the game and graphical elements are very much to my satisfaction, to me, the strength of this game is in its story and characters (which of course, includes the acting).
Now, I have said before that the characters are named after specific conditions attached to their story: Bridget Strand is an entity deeply linked to the Death Stranding, Sam Porter works as a porter and the person in charge of the Lake Knot City facility is named William Lake, just to give you a notion of what I’m talking about.
I must admit it took time to get used to this; it’s a bit like in the T.V series “Mr. Robot” where the antagonistic organization to the hackers is named “Evil Corp”. To me, doing this type of thing is a real gamble, especially if you’re aiming to create a serious perception of your story. To make this gamble work you need some real quality plot, aligned with a very intentional style, and aesthetics that justify this sort of “joke” to the serious spectator. In Death Stranding, if you pay close attention, these names act as a deterministic element that highlights the conflict each character endures, and to me, it sends a clear message that you can always override your label and define with your decisions and actions who you will be. I will elaborate, using the examples of several characters:
Interpreted by director Guillermo del Toro.
There’s nothing particularly subtle about being called “Deadman” so we can assume something very particular is going on with this fellow; he initially tells Sam he works in medical forensics, hence his name.
But the big revelation comes later when he opens up to Sam and confesses he’s basically a modern Frankenstein: a being artificially made of stem cells and heavily patched with dead men’s parts and organs. No family, no “beach” (meaning an afterlife), and no natural human connections, Deadman feels absolutely isolated and could even envy the painful existence and anxiety of any ordinary human of his age.
But here’s where the identity of being “a dead man” is challenged by the character: Deadman turns out to be a wonderful human being, and a beautiful soul even when he claims to have none. He shows zeal for Sam and for his mission, he manages to control his fear to take care of BB in the war zone, and he “conspires” with Sam and Heartman to uncover the secrets of the seemingly shady president of Bridges. At the end of the day, it’s Deadman who pulls Sam out of a tormented existence in eternal isolation and meaningless effort, when he’s trapped in his “beach” (the personal, transient realm of the dead).
So the artificial human is only artificial in his origins, but he defies everything that he was conditioned to be and emerges as a beautiful human being.
Actress Margaret Qualley plays “Mama”.
Mama’s story is probably one of the most complicated and unlikely in this Death Stranding world. Her name is Målingen, but believe me there’s a reason she’s called “Mama”.
Målingen and Lockne are twin sisters, and also very competent scientists. They’re as close as identical twins can be, but there’s one topic in which they’re very different: motherhood. Lockne loses her love in a tragic accident, but his semen is preserved frozen in case of an unforeseen circumstance and she decides to have his baby, but to her misfortune she’s sterile. Målingen isn’t, though.
In a sisterly love demonstration, Målingen accepts to host her nephew in her womb to help Lockne achieve her dreams of motherhood. But when she’s at the hospital almost delivering the baby, a bomb falls in the vicinity and leaves the hospital in ruins; Målingen remains alive, but trapped in the debris for days. While trapped in this fashion she gives birth but not in the intended fashion: the baby dies and what’s born is a baby BT (a ghost baby) that’s attached to her forever. This baby cries, and needs to be nurtured and appeased, unaware of its non-human condition.
In a horrible turn of events, the young woman who didn’t want to be a mother becomes “Mama” to a dangerous being that confines her to the lab built around the location where she was trapped, for her sake and the continuation of her critical scientific work. With time, Mama develops compassion and a certain affection for this unfortunate companion.
But the world needs saving, and the Q-Pid, the device Målingen and Lockne created to expand the chiral network becomes defective and needs the collaboration of the twins, who have been estranged ever since the bomb incident. Lockne won’t listen to a word coming from Bridges as she hates the company for what occurred and Mama is forced to visit her twin sister in Mountain Knot City. There’s only one way to be able to leave the lab: cutting the baby BT lose into the afterlife; this would also trigger Mama’s death, and she knows it.
Mama frees herself from her tormented condition, being a mother to a being who doesn’t belong in this world and pays the price of dying for the greater good, and in a final effort to accomplish the work of her life, her mission. Mama needs to go beyond being “Mama” to be Målingen, a heroine in the age of the Death Stranding.
Fragile is played by Léa Seydoux.
Fragile is a character with quite some baggage, a heroine and villain in almost equal parts among the “preppers”, people who live isolated from the main cities of the UCA. The reason: associating with the wrong people and being stained by the actions of her former business partner who betrayed her.
Fragile is a business heiress, of the type that works for her wages and cares about the legacy of her father. In that, she’s often very proactive, and considering her story and the state of the world, she’s often in impressive high spirits; she’s a strong woman. While Bridges is a huge private corporation gradually assuming government functions, Fragile could be thought of as a smaller business partner with considerable reach in areas Bridges is not necessarily welcome; and so, she’s very instrumental in achieving the whole chiral network expansion. Besides this, Fragile has mastered a technique to travel via the “beach”, that surreal area previously accessible only to the dead, and so she discovers a rather weird means of long-distance instant traveling. Fragile has DOOMS, meaning she has special perception “powers” coming from the Death Stranding, just like Sam does.
There are two big drivers for Fragile, which put her at the intersection of Sam’s mission and hence, makes them compulsory partners:
- The expansion of Fragile Express and honoring his father’s vision
- Taking revenge from Higgs, the leader of the terrorists, for his betrayal and the death of thousands in the destruction of Middle Knot City
Stemming from this, we witness Fragiles story of breaking with the limitations of her name and condition. Fragile’s body is always fully covered in a sort of whole-body special suit, she’s always wearing globes and constantly eating a disgusting insect that’s also a product of the Death Stranding, called a “Cryptobiote” which contains healing and regenerative properties. This is not a mere eccentricity.
Higgs, Fragile’s former business partner, turned to become a leader of a terrorist group, a sort of “doomsday cult” advocating for the completion of the Earth’s annihilation and accelerating it by using his incredible powers (mysteriously acquired) to lure the world of the dead into a massive collision that would destroy everything. Before going public about his agenda, Higgs tricked Fragile into placing anti-matter bombs in two cities: Middle Knot and South Knot; when Fragile realizes this, Higgs gives her the opportunity to save one of the cities, the one nearby, by letting her drop the bomb into the tar lake; but the price she has to pay is, she’s stripped down to her underwear and sent into the heavy time fall wearing only a mask; if she wants to save the city she will pay with her body aging to death or near death. She accepts Higgs’s conditions and saves South Knot, indeed damaging her own body beyond repair in the process.
Fragile’s body is highly debilitated, aged to the appearance of a very elder woman and her face remains her own age, in a twisted mockery designed by the terrorist leader.
However, besides her frail body, there’s nothing weak about her: she’s entrepreneurial, risky, determined, and relentless. Even in her worst physical state, she manages to transport all members of Sam’s crew to a single location to meet and support him in his final adventure and almost dies in the attempt, so one of Sam’s last missions is to bring her a box of cryptobiotes to save her life.
Fragile is just her name, her character is tough as nails.
Tommie Earl Jenkins, plays Die-Hardman.
You’ve probably noticed I’m very fond of all the characters I’ve mentioned, and I’ve genuinely enjoyed their stories and development.
Well, I left Die-Hardman for the end of the section because this is a special case worth a special mention. I hated Die-Hardman for most of the game, but it’s now my favorite character along with Deadman. The funny part is, although there’s an intentional misleading narrative inside the story to make you think this is a shady character, and such misunderstanding will be clarified in a series of shocking revelations towards the end of the story, I didn’t come to appreciate him because of that plot twist, remember I’ve played this game twice!
So if you watch my recordings in the playlist I linked to this article, you will often see my hateful reactions every time this guy gives a speech, I just hate the cliche of the “boy scout”, “aiming for the common good”, “united we will overcome” etc, etc style of leadership he exerts. This is why I disliked Die-Hardman so much.
But as I progressed towards the end of the story for a second time, and paid closer attention to his particular story and conflict, I came to love the courage, fortitude, and depth of character of a man cursed by remorse but nevertheless charging onwards to defy a larger curse: that of humanity.
Die-Hardman (his real name’s John) is the president of Bridges Corporation, effectively the “temporary leader” of what remains of the U.S. But before that, he was Bridget Strand’s right hand and most faithful protector. Bridget Strand, by the way, is the ultimate antagonist in the game and conversely the provider of the last opportunity for the world to survive; she was Sam’s foster mother and the last President of the UCA. Bridget is as ambiguous as a character could be, and it’s until the end that we understand she was fated to become the Extinction Entity that should have brought the world’s demise and who effectively manipulates the people who loved her and causes the death and the pain of many to attain her ultimate goal: to attract the only person who can love her for what she is, and ask him to stop her from fulfilling her fate; that’s our hero, Sam Bridges. I will explain more of this in my next article.
Before becoming the watchdog of the most powerful woman alive, Die-Hardman served in the military under Captain Cliff Unger. Cliff was a Special Forces war hero, a deadly warrior who you never want to cross, and also a beloved leader and a very decent man. The reason people call John “Die-Hardman” is more a testament to Cliff’s heroism than John’s own ability to survive; per his own words to Cliff : “you wouldn’t let me die, you saved me once and again, and again”. It seems like John was a bit of a reckless young soldier, who kept putting himself in dire straits and getting involved in complex situations, which Cliff always endured in order to preserve the life of his subordinate. John admired and loved Cliff for that.
But life brought John to a terrible crossroads, a series of events that would brand him forever. Cliff’s wife, Lisa, was pregnant but suffered an accident that caused her to be brain-dead; if you recall what I said about Bridges Babies and still mothers, you may start to draw an association.
Being that Bridges is the closest to a functional government entity in the post-stranding world, and have the best medical facilities and scientists, Cliff brings his wife and unborn son to Bridges medical facilities, where Lisa is put on life support and his unborn baby is removed from her and supported on a separate tank. The Captain’s heart remains in that hospital room, in the game, we see frequent flashbacks (that seem to be visions triggered by Sam connecting the B.B to himself), where he constantly visits his family, celebrates anniversaries, and birthdays, and lives in a very complex emotional landscape while awaiting for Bridges to come through and bring his family back while giving his baby a chance to grow; but years go by and things remain the same, the baby is 6 years old now and is still a baby in a tank, so something’s wrong.
The truth is, “Our Lady of Torments”, Bridget Strand is on the brink of a major breakthrough in her investigation of the chiral matter, and has plans to use the baby as a tool and foundation for a concept that could mean the hope of mankind: the chiral network. These are the plans, never revealed to Cliff, and the reason why it’s not feasible to help him; unknowingly, Cliff is about to become a “sacrifice for the common good” and his family with him.
In the middle of this situation, is Die-Hardman, now a mature man who’s the protector and ally of a desperate president scratching all possibilities for hope: Bridget is not a typical villain, she’s a leader in the worst situation and has to choose among many terrible evils: yes, she does a horrible thing in a horrible way, but could it have been done differently? And John, being an honest man, can’t just watch the cruel fate of Cliff and his family without providing an opportunity, so risking his career and his life he informs Cliff of Bridges’ plans and gives him a head start to finish his wive’s artificial life and save his baby. But as the man escapes with his baby, the alarms are triggered and persecution begins; already fatally wounded by Bridges soldiers, Cliff ends up meeting death at the hand of the soldier who loved him and owed him his life, John, who pretended to pursue him while giving him a chance to escape, but Bridget forced his finger to pull the trigger with her own hand.
So Die-Hardman found himself unable to risk his life and career openly for the man who had saved him so many times, it is hinted that he loved Bridget and this brought even more complexity into the situation. This is his curse and the remorse that eats him inside.
In a scene that made me have to hold my tears, the big man, now officially President of the UCA, opens up to Sam and tells him the whole story; he’s brought to his knees by remorse and pain and assumes his responsibility on the murder of an innocent man. In the way he tries to make sense of things, Die-Hardman tells Sam that maybe this is the way to honor Cliff, by being Die-Hardman, by refusing death, and using this endurance as an asset to lead the nation. But in a deep display of wisdom, Sam tells him that’s a load of bullshit, the nation doesn’t need a leader who can’t die, but a man of flesh and bone who can leave behind who he was and become a better person, capable of better decisions; at that moment, maybe without fully knowing it, Sam sets Die-Hardman free from his past not by justifying it but by showing him the way of change, of having a second opportunity to do things right.
This scene is really an out-of-sync moment of forgiveness, at this point in the story Sam doesn’t know and we don’t know it, but Cliff’s and Lisa’s baby-in-a-tank is no other than Sam.
Closing Thoughts: The Courage to Make Your Own Decisions
I swear, I was going to make this snappy and deal with the three core topics in a single article, but guess what? I couldn’t.
I’m sorry I get carried away, but I’m very happy with the article and I almost make myself cry remembering all these very human conflicts and stories, that while existing only in Kojima’s and his amazing team of writers’ imaginations, speak to profound themes many of us face as life unfolds before our eyes and presents us with a reality that’s less than ideal: The honorable actions versus the visible actions, the need to make condemnable decisions and the character to stand behind them while its needed, the power to forgive oneself and the courage to build on top of what’s been destroyed, the lack of proportionality between efforts and outcome, and the freedom of embracing one’s own actions, the path we’ve chosen, no matter how hard it may be, over choosing to be a victim of circumstance and sheltering oneself behind a label that’s perhaps excusable to others, but unbearable to your own true self.